At the Ivanpah solar power plant in the Southern California desert, 340,000 mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on water-filled boilers that sit atop 459-foot towers. That heat creates steam to drive a turbine that produces enough carbon-free electricity to power 140,000 homes.
That’s good for you, me, and the planet. But for the birds, not so much. A report issued in April by federal scientists called Ivanpah a “mega-trap” for birds that are instantly incinerated as they fly into an 800-degree Fahrenheit “solar flux field” generated by the mirrors. When the biologists visited Ivanpah, they saw a bird go up in smoke every two minutes. Other birds died when they collided with the mirrors or when heat singed their feathers and they plummeted to the ground. A peregrine falcon, a red-shouldered hawk, and an ash-throated flycatcher have been among the birds killed at Ivanpah.
Now dogs are coming to the rescue—specifically, dogs trained to spot and retrieve the bodies of fallen birds. Scientists believe if they can get an accurate account of how many birds die at Ivanpah and where, they can take measures to minimize those deaths.
“It must be emphasized that we currently have a very incomplete knowledge of the scope of avian mortality at these solar facilities,” scientists with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory wrote in their report.
Trying to find small bird bodies—before they decompose or are eaten by scavengers—on the sprawling 3,700-acre Ivanpah site has proved a proverbial needle-in-a-haystack conundrum. In a test, when people were sent to search for birds placed around the site, they could only find about 36 percent of small bird bodies and 43 percent of large birds, according to a report filed in June with the California Energy Commission, which regulates solar thermal power plants.
The dogs, on the other hand, sniffed out 68 percent of small birds and 71 percent of large birds.
So just how many birds are being killed at Ivanpah? A survey conducted between October 2013 and March 2014 detected 91 dead birds and five dead bats. The researchers attributed about a quarter of those deaths to burns inflicted by the solar flux field.
The survey, which was completed by consultants hired by NRG Energy, the company that operates Ivanpah, downplayed the bird deaths. “Total detections of any one species represent a very small proportion of local, regional, or national populations,” the report stated.
Still, the great unknown is how many birds are going up in flames as they fly too close to the towers. The federal biologists recommended that NRG install video cameras to record birds that enter the solar flux field.
In the meantime, it’s Lassie to the rescue.